Exploring the future shape of Church and mission in Northern Ireland
Post-Christian? Exploring the future shape of Church and mission in Northern Ireland
Church attendance is falling, Christian influence in society is decreasing and congregations are closing. Western nations, by and large, can be described as post-Christian – Christianity is no longer familiar but foreign, no longer dominant but one among a diversity of belief systems and no longer mainstream but marginal. Many Christians in Western countries hear this narrative of decline with heavy hearts. But is it true? Certainly, it contains much truth, but it is not the whole story. In other parts of the world, the reality is very different and the Church is blossoming, but even in the West, there are exceptions. My research in this context suggests Northern Ireland is not post-Christian. The Church here faces challenges, but one of the greatest risks may be to underestimate our strengths and so to miss our opportunities or react in ways that cause harm rather than help.
One area that has caught the imagination of many evangelicals is church planting. In Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, some passionate and gifted individuals are seeking to establish new expressions of church that can reach this changed context effectively, often cheered on by networks committed to church planting. Considering this activity has caused me to ask questions such as: how do we engage well with the Northern Irish context? How does church planting operate in areas where the Church is already present? What vision of the Church and its calling inspires us? Do we have a robust missionary ecclesiology?
Realising these needs, I sought a framework in to guide us to faithfulness. I settled on the four creedal words about the Church – one, holy, catholic and apostolic. I came to see them as a work of genius – a distillation of biblical priorities and a nexus of qualities with the power to shape the Church in its patterns, practices and mission. I saw how the words were distorted and only partially recovered in the history of the Church. I realised that the crucible of church planting is both the context where these qualities are most often neglected, but also where there is greatest potential to express them most fully.
What would a recovery of the creedal qualities mean for the Church in the West and, specifically, in Northern Ireland? Is there a place for church planting and, if so, how can it happen without denying oneness, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity? Where is Christ leading His Church in this moment of challenge and change?
On Wednesday 14th March I will suggest some answers to these questions based on my research, but we can only begin to understand better and to live in this reality if we come with all our experiences, insights and dreams. I hope you’ll join me and contribute to the conversation.